Integrated delivery drones: High-flying delivery assistants with four propellers

Jan 5, 2017

They fly autonomously, evade obstacles and deliver punctually: the Vision Van's delivery drones. It is all based on precise interaction between drone, software and vehicle.

Two delivery drones form an integral part of the integrated Vision Van system. The delivery drones have no problem reaching remote and poorly connected delivery locations, which would require the van to take highly circuitous routes. The Vision Van provides the perfect mobile platform for the drones and enables their efficient, comprehensive operation.

Together with technology partner Matternet, a leading Silicon Valley-based developer of drone logistics systems, Mercedes-Benz Vans has developed an ideal concept for the combined operation of drone and vehicle. In the course of the joint development work, the existing drone concept was refined and tailored precisely to operation in combination with the van. The drone's housing consists of carbon fibre and aluminium. The four propellers each measure 21.5 inches (approx. 55 cm) in diameter. Similar multirotor systems from Matternet have already proven their credentials in inaccessible regions, supplying people with medicines and other light items. The drones have a payload capacity of two kilograms and their batteries can last for round-trip flights of up to 20 km.

Air delivery by drone offers many advantages. It boosts the efficiency of delivery operations, as more consignments can be delivered at the same time. It lowers the strain on road traffic, as the number of stops and the curbside time of the delivery vehicles are reduced. It enhances the quality of delivery, as customers are able to choose a fixed delivery time window while ordering. Cutting-edge drone technology and complex software systems enable an intelligent integration of the drones into the vehicle.

Staying in approved airspace at all times

An important step in the supply chain takes place at the distribution centre, when the dimensions, weights, delivery addresses and delivery times of the packages are automatically recorded by the system. On the basis of these data, intelligent control software calculates the route planning for the vehicle and the assignment of the packages to the racks. The system then defines the launch and landing points for the drones, schedules the stops for the vehicle accordingly and plans the respective flight routes on the basis of up-to-the-minute map data. In addition to the landscape topography, the system also takes count of infrastructure, no-fly zones and other restrictions. In this way it ensures that the drones are always in safe and approved airspace during their autonomous flights.

Complex interactions between drone, vehicle and IT-supported back-end processes take place during take-off and landing of the drones. During the journey to the delivery address, vehicle and drone form a single physical entity. A robust holding device enters into the landing frame and fixes the drone securely in place on the roof of the vehicle. The cloud-based air route planning tool identifies and continuously monitors the vehicle's position via GPS. The loaded drone takes off autonomously as soon as the vehicle has reached the pre-defined, safe launch point and has come to a standstill. Launching and landing always take place at stops for manual delivery
which are advantageous for the flying and driving route.

Fully-charged battery for each flight

The automatic cargo space management system prepares for the launch of the drones while the vehicle is en route to the launching point. The rack feeder moves the load carrier with the drone box for the impending flight into position under the anchored drone. The battery for the drone is located on the box. A lifting arm transports the load carrier into position directly under the vehicle's roof. The hatch above which the drone is located opens automatically. A lifting arm slides the package and battery into the opening provided in the drone. The drone moves package box and battery into the precise, separate final position by means of a gripping mechanism and locks them in place. At the launching point the holding device which connects the quadcopter to the vehicle is released. The drone is ready to take off.

Matternet’s system calculates a flight route free of obstacles by reference to detailed maps. The drone lands solely on stations designed specifically for this purpose – either on the Vision Van or on special landing stations belonging to the customers. The drone is guided via GPS into position 17 m directly over the landing station. During the landing process the landing station emits an infrared guide beam which maintains the drone in position during its descent until its landing is completed. The drone deposits the package box in the landing station. The battery remains in the drone. The drone then returns to the vehicle, where it lands and deposits the discharge battery in the load carrier. The next drone box contains a fresh battery for the next delivery flight.